Ask Auntie Leila: Wardrobe foundations

Dear Brandi writes:

I feel like one of the lost skills of womanhood is how to dress oneself properly. I don’t mean looking put together but what kind of slip to wear, hosiery, etc. Basically, those garments we lost to feminism but are actually helpful. Can you share some lost wisdom on this?

Dear Brandi,

The garments, the garments. I can just remember how they were when I was a little girl in the 60s. A big topic of conversation among women was girdles! How uncomfortable they were, and they certainly looked pitiless.

And stockings! Things were progressing to the point of stockings that didn’t have seams in the back, needing to be kept in alignment (and opening the lady whose lines were not in order to judgment about her self-respect), but they were made of a kind of material that was all too susceptible to gravity. Ladies were always needing to find a private place to pull their nylons up again. And they got runs so easily — grief hovered in the air at all times over this calamity.

I remember thinking that I needed a way to escape this trap of adulthood, because I was not going to wear those things! I was so fatally sensitive to all the stimuli — the woolen underwear for children that was also still in use just about killed me, as my skin reacts to it by exploding into sensory chaos. I couldn’t imagine life as a grownup in a girdle and stockings.

Then along came women’s rights and bra-burning and hippie scorn for convention! If it got me out of having to wear dresses, I was for it! Ironically, at the same time, spandex transformed all the things, making them a lot more comfortable. I have a vivid memory of two plump playground monitor moms laughing hysterically over a pair of pantyhose that one of them pulled out of her bag, that looked like it might possibly fit a 2-year-old — until then you had to buy your hose in your exact size and hope for the best!

So you are right — there is a disconnect there. It took me a long time to figure out what I needed to dress comfortably, modestly, and I hope, attractively, especially in cold weather.

And yes, modesty is a big part of this question. Modesty is not limited to sexuality. It’s about fittingness in one’s personal appearance, so that one radiates to the eyes of others (and to their other senses too!) the truth of what is invisible. Modesty has a lot to do with figuring out how to be out and about without fidgeting, tugging, letting things hang out, and having what ought to be unseen be seen, yikes.

(For a full discussion of modesty, do hearken back to this book reading we had here on Wendy Shalit’s excellent book, A Return to Modesty.)

So here is what I have learned. Please keep in mind that I am taking into consideration the need to be warm for many months of the year. If you live in California etc. not all of this will be needed. But you may travel! And you may not be aware of the pitfalls… I will tell you.

Starting from the inside and working our way out — and I won’t have many photos because it’s hard to find modest ones:

Underpants: Thank goodness we don’t have to deal with tortuous girdles, but I don’t think the answer is bikini panties or even scantier options! Again with the tugging! Also, many women deal with cramps and scars and other abdominal issues. Why would we want a piece of elastic going across this sensitive area?

Then there’s the question of muffin-tops and lumpiness in general. I want to look smooth. The industry has tried to make me think that putting the panty line lower down will help, but that doesn’t make sense. Why not have something that comfortably smooths over the entire area, front and back, with some compression but not too much, and with the panty line at my waist where it won’t shift? But it must have cotton where it’s needed.

My suggestion is something like this (affiliate link)

I know that some will think granny panties, but the vibe is, rather, more like this (well, maybe not “sea nymph,” it’s hard to find a picture of what I mean, but let’s normalize curves and coverage!):

(I bought a supply of these (affiliate link) and they are now unavailable, but if you click on it you will see similar items. I wouldn’t want to link to something I haven’t bought, but you get the idea. I ordered my usual medium size and they are fine, but the description now says that they run small).

Bras: As I am not super well endowed, I will leave it at this: I don’t like underwires and sometimes, if I can only find bras with them, I take them out by cutting a little slit on the inside to access them. I just get mine at Marshalls; my main thought is that they give me a smooth look. I prefer ones that match my skin tone so that they aren’t visible under a light shirt.

Tights and pantyhose: In summer I don’t wear them unless the event is very formal indeed. We’re not talking about clothing here but let me just say that unless you’re at the beach and/or are 16 or younger, skirts and dresses should be knee length or longer. No one wants to see your knees! And if the skirt covers them, and you shave and moisturize your legs, you can get away with this most of the time. Again, I am a recovering hippie so this is fine with me.

But when the weather gets cooler, I like to have a supply of pantyhose, tights, and footless tights. I buy them at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx. Let’s discuss:

Sheer pantyhose in nude and black for really dressing up, with control tops. One of each. I prefer sheer all the way down to the toes so that whatever shoes I’m wearing won’t expose heel and toe issues.

Regular, non-fleece-lined tights. I like to have 3-4 pairs of these in black (maybe one in gray and one in brown if I can find them). These tights make me comfortable in a skirt in all but the coldest weather. They pull the outfit together and look trim — with cute clogs or flats I can go all day. They are sturdy, resisting runs, and even if they get a hole it doesn’t spread (this was a big advance that I also remember!) Maybe you think tights are constricting, but actually they are freeing. Just get your actual size! 

Fleece-lined tights. Here in New England I need these in winter. With a corduroy skirt and slip (discussed below) I’m good to go. 

Footless tights. Some of the pairs can be footless. This means I can wear warm socks; with boots no one can tell and I’m warmer and the weird sweatiness you can get with tights in the foot area is obviated. 

Leggings. These are handy in cool but not cold weather where you can stick your bare feet in a pair of flats and are good to go — if you are wearing a tunic that covers down to your thighs. Trust me… your backside, which you do not see, is not advantageous in leggings.

Slips: Here’s the real puzzler for many of you! What is a slip and — why?

Well, if you are going to be wearing pantyhose or tights, you need a nylon slip so that your skirt or dress doesn’t cling to them and make it hard for you to walk! A slip allows your skirt to… slip over your tights!

It’s all fine until you go from your house to outside. Suddenly, the change in temperature creates static and your dress is flattened against your legs. You can’t take a step because the fabric is wrapping around you! You needed a slip.

You can usually find nice ones at thrift stores, so you don’t even have to spend much on them. Have one that is just above your knees so it doesn’t show with a knee-length skirt, one midi one, and one longer one for your holiday maxi-skirt that will wrap around your ankles if you don’t have it. I also like having one midi one with a slit to wear under a pencil skirt with its own slit.

If the world were a place of justice, skirts would come lined and you wouldn’t need a slip, but we live in barbaric times… I have one fabulous mid-calf wool skirt with a lining that makes my life so much simpler in winter. Keep your eye out in thrift stores for such a thing.

The slip also adds a layer of warmth. You might not think it, but it does. And if you have a fancy frock with a bit of swing to it, consider an actual crinoline (affiliate link) to give it the necessary body and avoid a sort of limp effect that ruins the effort.

Consider getting a half-slip for your daughter. You can reconcile her to skirts and dresses if she doesn’t always feel that they are scrunching up on her. A lot of the resistance you’re getting has to do with a sense of being exposed and so is actually quite valid. Address that issue and you may find more cooperation.

Camisoles. In cool weather, a camisole adds a layer and can be tucked into your skirt or pants to keep you warm. In summer it provides modesty if your top is sheer. Old Navy has tunic-length camis that might be helpful under a short dress or long top with leggings.

All of these things can seem like… a lot. Is it worth it? All these layers? In colder weather it is — I would rather take the time (and know that I am extremely impatient with such things! hence it took me a long time to work up to all this) than get stuck somewhere with that miserable feeling of not being dressed in a fitting way, which to me, sort of characterizes immodesty (again, not in a sexual sense but in a sense of having my body not be the focus of my — or others’ — attention).

I spent a lot of time in my younger days just not having the right things to wear. A skeptic (not you, Brandi!) might save herself some embarrassment and free herself to have a nice feminine wardrobe.

A word about jeans. I know some of my readers have sworn off pants and jeans altogether. But if you wear them, consider the question of why, why have extra, stiff layers of fabric, not to mention metal, in the sensitive area of your abdomen. I have found this style (affiliate link) and I have never looked back, since I do wear jeans on certain occasions (including yard work unless it’s very hot).

Since we’ve long ago left behind tucking in shirts, the elastic panel doesn’t show anyway. It pulls everything in nicely and most importantly, eliminates the bulky, even pointy, situation right where I personally do not need it!

If your figure is full in the hips and small in the waist, I don’t think they would work (and jeans in general probably don’t work), but otherwise they are brilliant. I have two in the dark wash denim and one in black (the photo on the listing makes them look wrinkly but they are not like that). The black ones are super clutch when I want to be ready to do work but also look a little more put together.

I do dearly wish they would make them in twill and corduroy!

Do get the bootcut style. They are merely straight, and my observation is that ankle-hugging jeans are not attractive — the straight style lengthens your leg and is much more modest.

(And no, leggings that resemble jeans are not acceptable substitutes. They really don’t look as good as you think they do… I’m old enough now to say it…)

For a full treatment on dressing in cold weather, go here.

For more on dressing in a pretty way (especially after babies), go here.

For a corduroy skirt I like, go here. This particular one is no longer in stock, sadly, but it gives you an idea of what works for winter while still looking attractive. Try searching “flared corduroy riding boot skirt” and see what comes up… this one is pretty (if pricey). This denim skirt (affiliate link) is good for all but the dead of winter, and is actually much nicer in person.

There you have it! Did I leave anything out?

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